Review: Delicious Dueling Divas in ‘War Paint’
By Christopher Caggiano, Contributing Writer, April 7, 2017
Some musicals become must-see events based on the people behind the scenes, others because of the performers featured in them. War Paint is a little bit of both.
War Paint, which opened last night on Broadway, represents a reunion of many of the talented people behind the touching and funny Grey Gardens, including composer Scott Frankel, lyricist Michael Korie, librettist Doug Wright, and director Michael Greiff.
That lineup is certainly enough to get many a musical fanatic’s attention, but when you add in the fact that the two stars of the show are two-time Tony winners Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole, well, let’s just say that, when that announcement came, there were gasps, screams, and the clutching of pearls at keyboards throughout the theater community. And some of them even came from women.
Plus, there’s the fascinating subject matter. War Paint musicalizes the life-long business rivalry between makeup titans Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein. I mean, with that subject matter, those creatives, and that incredible cast, what self-respecting show queen would dare to miss War Paint?
Myself, I simply couldn’t wait until War Paint made its all-but-inevitable Broadway transfer, so I flew out to Chicago to catch its tryout run at the Goodman Theatre. The show was already in solid shape at that time, but when I caught a recent Broadway preview, just before the show was frozen, it had become more streamlined, more humorous, and ultimately more moving.
War Paint is a confident, unapologetically old-style musical, whose main accomplishment rests not in merely giving two fabulous Broadway divas a chance to belt their faces off, but also in making real people out of these two icons, and in giving heartfelt expression to their struggles as women in business and their challenges as social outsiders.
Rubinstein and Arden, as rendered in War Paint, are larger-than-life figures, and LuPone and Ebersole are both at the top of their game as the dueling divas. LuPone has never been funnier — or louder, for that matter — but the performance never feels like it’s too much. Ebersole has never sounded sweeter, even if the show doesn’t quite give her as many opportunities to reveal her remarkable brand of pathos as Grey Gardens did.
Frankel’s score is full of the sort of old style, full-throat belting that puts a flutter in the atria of showtune mavens everywhere. Frankel and Korie seem to have been very cognizant in their song choices to balance the amount of solo work that each of the ladies has. One major standout in the score was the powerful and moving “Pink,” in which Ebersole as Arden looks back on her long, successful career and laments how it all seems to have been reduced by history to nothing more than her signature color.
Never to be outdone, LuPone has a handful of powerful moments to herself, including “Now You Know,” in which Rubinstein poignantly points out the parallels in the social struggles of the two women, with affecting recognition, but also more than a hint of resentment.
The show thankfully doesn’t come to a halt in the relatively rare moments when neither of the ladies is on stage. John Dossett and Douglas Sills, as Adren’s husband and Rubinstein’s marketing manager, respectively, get a couple of terrific numbers rich in character, including a wonderful comic duet in the second act called “Dinosaurs,” in which they bemoan their bosses’ unwillingness to keep up with the times.
Doug Wright’s efficient libretto neatly parallels the triumphs and travails of both women, perhaps at times a bit too neatly. There’s a lot of chronological ground to cover, resulting in a need for some narrative expedience. In particular, the repeated narrative device of having the ladies overhear each other at the restaurant at the St. Regis hotel is a bit convenient.
But Wright’s dialogue is priceless, with a delicious cattiness that readily recalls the best moments in The Women. LuPone gets some of the most pithy lines, including, “They are no ugly women, only lazy ones,” and “Every morning I tell the mirror I am beautiful, and then I dare it to defy me.” But Ebersole gets some classic quips in as well, including moments pointing out her competitors’ pretensions. Regarding someone’s mention of Estée Lauder, Arden snipes, “It’s Esther! Esther from Queens!”
The physical production of War Paint is visually stunning, as befits a story of two cosmetics titans. David Korins’ glowing unit set deftly changes from pink (Arden) to blue (Rubinstein) lighting to indicate whose domain we are currently occupying, with locations suggested by richly detailed set pieces, creating an opulent feel.
The passage of time — the show spans the years of 1935 to 1964 — is suggested mostly by Catherine Zuber’s trim and modish costume design, one of the most delicious parades of period wear in many a theater season. And the entire affair is fluidly and efficiently staged by Michael Greif, who is also represented on Broadway this year with his remarkably sensitive direction to Dear Evan Hansen.
As fab and glam as War Paint is, it’s not clear that there’s a wide audience for its subject matter. It’s hard to imagine the show catching on with the Hamilton crowd. But War Paint is clearly the kind of show that gay men of a certain age will undoubtedly flock to. In fact, there were so many middle-aged queens in attendance the night I saw the show on Broadway — myself included — that there was more probably makeup in the audience than featured in the story.
(Sorry. I guess the show has put me in a catty mood.)
War Paint at the Nederlander Theatre, 208 West 41st Street, opened on April 6, 2017 for an open-end run. Book by Doug Wright; music by Scott Frankel; lyrics by Michael Korie; based on the book ‘War Paint’ by Lindy Woodhead. Directed by Michael Greif; choreography by Christopher Gattelli; scenic design by David Korins; costume design by Catherine Zuber; lighting design by Kenneth Posner; sound design by Brian Ronan; wig design by David Brian Brown; make-up design by Angelina Avallone. Cast: Patti Lupone (as Helena Rubinstein), Christine Ebersole (as Elizabeth Arden) with Ohn Dossett, Tommy Lewis, Douglas Sills, Harry Fleming, Barbara Jo Bednarczuk, Patti Cohenour, Mary Ernster, David Girolmo, Joanna Glushak, Chris Hoch, Mary Claire King, Steffanie Leigh, Erik Liberman, Barbara Marineau, Donna Migliaccio, Stephanie Jae Park, Jennifer Rias, Angel Reda, and Tally Sessions.
Cover: (l. to r.) Christine Ebersole and Patti LuPone and members of the company in ‘War Paint;’ photo: Joan Marcus.